Fittingly, for a man whose epic achievements in the saddle have more than a whiff of Hollywood about them, the greatest jump jockey of all time, AP McCoy, yesterday rode off into the sunset on a horse called Box Office.
But the blockbuster script, which has seen McCoy race more than 16,000 times, did not deliver the ending the racing world desired. He could manage only third in the 4.25 at Sandown as he brought the curtain down on a career that has seen him victorious on more than 4,300 occasions.
Earlier in the day, McCoy, born in Co Antrim, Northern Ireland, had taken to Twitter to express his gratitude to fans for their support in what was an emotional day for everyone in racing. “Thanks for all the good wishes, I’ve been so lucky to live my life as a jockey thanks to everyone who helped me make all my dreams come true,” he tweeted.
In front of a sell-out 18,000 crowd at Sandown, the smiling 40-year-old was crowned champion jockey for the 20th consecutive time. The avid Arsenal fan was presented with the champion’s trophy by former Gunners striker Ian Wright. McCoy, who has held the title since 1996, is the only man to have lifted that trophy, and is now allowed to keep it permanently.
The leading lights of the racing world vied with each other for superlatives as they tried to describe a colossus of sport.
“He was so damn good that he always made you try harder,” said fellow jockey Ruby Walsh, a friend of McCoy’s. “He has set standards and targets that are going to be in the history books for a long, long time and to be able to say I rode with him, and beat him the odd time, is a privilege.”
Walsh drew parallels with other sporting greats. “He’s just brilliant. What makes Messi, what makes Ronaldo, what makes Federer, what made any of them? They are just unbelievably talented.”
Martin Pipe, the 15-time champion trainer, declared McCoy “the best we have ever seen. He has such a dedication to winning. It’s been a privilege to know him. It’s very emotional, we will miss him tremendously,” Pipe said. “He would never admit defeat, he was always trying to win.”
McCoy’s steely determination was apparent in his relentless pursuit of horseracing’s most famous trophy. By 2010, he had won every major race, including the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Champion Chase, but the Grand National continued to elude him, despite 14 attempts. Then, at the 15th time of asking, he romped home by five lengths on Don’t Push It.
Box Office was McCoy’s second ride of the day. Earlier, he had ridden Mr Mole in a race named in his honour, the AP McCoy Celebration Chase. Despite leading early on, McCoy was forced to make do with third place, leaving fans hoping his final race would see him victorious. But it was not to be.
Nevertheless, there was a celebratory atmosphere at Sandown as McCoy basked in the adulation of a crowd who sang For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow while fellow jockeys formed a guard of honour. For a famously driven man there is speculation about what he will do next. But the father of two, who won BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2010, admits he has little idea what he will do after retirement.
“I love riding, I love my job and, like every sportsman, I just wished it was never going to happen,” he said earlier in the week, adding: “I’ve always lived in the fear of carrying on too long, or maybe not being as successful as I was, or maybe not as good as I was.”
In an interview with the Guardian he likened riding to an addiction.
“It’s a terrible way of describing it but I’ve been like a drug addict this week,” he said. “I’m trying to wean myself off it and accept that I’m not a jockey any more.”
His body, however, may be grateful. McCoy has fallen a thousand times in his career and has broken most of the major bones in his body.
It was left to McCoy’s Gunners idol, Wright, to provide the context. “For 20 years he has been at the top of his game, riding winners, week in week out,” Wright said. “I can think of no other sportsman or woman who can match his record.”
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